Travel does not always begin with the boarding of an airplane, but rather at the moment one opens the mind to new possibilities. I was quite surprised when the gentleman I had engaged in dinner conversation at a party in Los Angeles told me he was an elder of the Maasai nation.
Moses was in America to study theology at a local seminary, a contradiction for the traditional Maasai who, as animists, shun western style education. When finished, he would be only the sixth Maasai known to receive a PhD. He now shuttles back and forth between America and Kenya where he has created a foundation that drills water wells and builds schools in the bush.
After a year of invitations, my wife and I found ourselves on a hot, dusty Africa savannah. The culture shock was complete when I saw Moses, normally clad in blue jeans and a blazer, in his brilliant red shuka (Maasai robe) with a long spear. The only familiar connection was his brilliant smile as I saw my old friend for the first time in his natural state, a man of power and respect within his own element.
We spent that first afternoon walking through his valley while Moses spun tales of growing up with wild animals for companions and not hearing a mechanical sound until he was almost ten years old. Suddenly he motioned toward a tree where a young leopard sat eyeing us, and at that point, Africa became a very serious place.
With Mother Earth and Lions
The Maasai have a connection to the earth that is beyond the comprehension of those of us who dwell in cities; it is their home and mother. For them there is no afterlife; you simply return to the earth. There is no past or future, only the now, and they live accordingly as stewards of the earth.
He told us how to track an animal, how to read its scat, and know its sex by the depth of its print in the dirt. He showed us how to follow a trail by the bend of a leaf, and I realized that while in Africa, he occupied a separate reality than I did, and marveled at how he transitioned from one to the other with ease.
He spoke of how as traditional nomads, he was never sure where his family would be when he returned to Africa, and would wander the valley till he found them. We walked for hours and I asked him how the Maasai navigate in the bush. Moses just smiled and said, "A Maasai may not always know where he is, but he is never lost." When we returned to the village he invited us inside his hut and became very serious, asking if we wanted to know about hunting lions.
Lion hunting has long been central to Maasai culture. In olden days, before a Maasai boy could be considered a man, he had to participate in a lion hunt using only a spear and animal hide shield. The first lion hunt was the paramount point in the life of a Maasai youth, and nothing he did for the rest of his life would equal its importance.
Even though this practice was outlawed by the Kenyan government long ago, the Maasai still practice it covertly, and Moses was being unusually candid by his willingness to share such intimate information.
He stared into the fire for a long time before speaking and I knew this story would be a rare gift to a friend. The word "friend" has special meaning to the Maasai, much more than in western society. To them it is more like being a brother, and when Moses applied it to me, it touched my soul.
Lion-hunting to Become a Man
Moses was 13 when he was picked for his first lion hunt, determined to prove himself and gain great face, but admitted to such fear that he could not sleep the night before the hunt.
On the actual morning, while his face was being painted as a warrior for the first time, he felt everyone could hear his heart pounding, and was sure all would notice the spear shaking in his hand. As the warriors gathered in the morning mist, his knees almost buckled.